Farmer/owner: John & George Steel
Farm location: Buchlyvie, Stirlingshire
Farm name: Gartentruch Farm
Herd: 150 Holsteins
Milking system: Two Fullwood Merlins
Date of installation: November 2011
The installation last year of two second-hand robots has transformed the daily workload for John and George Steel of Gartentruch Farm at Buchlyvie in Stirlingshire and has average cow yields jump from 65 to 80 litres per day.
The Steel family has farmed at Gartentruch for several generations, but it wasn’t until 1982 that milk production started at the farm. In those days the herd consisted of just 50 cows, but it has expanded slowly over the past 30 years to a current herd size of 150.
The farm’s old parlour was a 12:12 herringbone arrangement that took one person six hours to complete two milkings per day. The parlour had recently been upgraded, but even when the work was being carried out to improve the parlour’s speed and milking efficiency, John and George were harbouring thoughts about moving to a fully automated system.
It was five years ago that the John and George started to receive the kind of feedback that they wanted to hear from existing robot users. “It seemed that the latest laser systems which guide teat cup attachment had brought robots to a turning point in terms of speed and reliability,” John continues.
John was keen to move to an automated milking system for a number of reasons. “Initially I was keen to improve my own lifestyle so that I could do more of the things I wanted to do away from the farm – such as playing sport and spending more time with the family. Those ideals still ring true, but in hindsight, the robots have done much more for us. They have enabled the cows to give more milk through more regular milkings, and we have more time to concentrate on an array of other jobs such as improving fertility and cow welfare.”
The Steels had hoped to receive grant aid funding to help pay for their robotic installation but as the business didn’t employ anyone under the age of 40 they were ineligible to apply.
“We therefore re-evaluated our options and bought two second-hand Fullwood Merlin machines from a farmer who was doubling his cow numbers from 200 to 400,” John adds.
The Merlin robots were five years old when acquired by the Steels, but despite initial worries about moving and reinstalling them, the machines have proved to be extremely reliable. “The team of engineers at McCaskie Farm Supplies in Stirling have been very helpful and are always on hand to give advice,” John continues. “We haven’t incurred any significant problems, which in itself is testament to the reliability and robust construction of the machines.”
The robots were installed during the autumn of 2011 just before a group of 70 heifers calved. “We wanted to get the robots up and running prior to calving because heifers are generally easier to train than older cows. Fortunately the robots ran almost perfectly as soon as they were plugged in and we were able to milk the freshly calved animals without any real difficulties.”
As well as fulfilling John’s ambition of a less frantic working day, the new system has also given the cows a more relaxed regime. “The higher yielders are more comfortable because they are carrying less milk in their udders and they don’t have to contend with the trials and tribulations of a typical Scottish summer. Housing the cows all year round has enabled us to keep a tighter control on feed intake and as a direct result we are getting improved yields. We never saw cows giving more than 60-65 litres through the old parlour, but during the winter we had plenty of cows peaking at over 80 litres.”
At the time when the two Merlins were installed, a concrete plinth and foundation was constructed for a third robot to be put in. “We want to expand the herd when we are ready,” John explains, “but before we do that we need to make sure we are breeding the right kind of replacements.